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With Golisano out, how will GOP fill void? Faso's Conservative ties energize race with Weld

Now that billionaire B. Thomas Golisano is back focusing on his hockey team, New York Republicans must get serious about finding a candidate for governor.

Golisano's announcement last week that he is content to guide the Buffalo Sabres and forgo a fourth campaign for governor means that the party is regrouping around "real" GOP names. Those include former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld and former Assembly Minority Leader John J. Faso.

Its most immediate priority, according to State Republican Chairman Stephen J. Minarik III, is to emerge from May's state convention on Long Island with a united front.

"We absolutely have to have one candidate established, no primaries, and be ready for a straightforward run against Eliot Spitzer," he said, referring to the leading Democratic candidate. "It's imperative."

But it won't be that easy, especially with the specter of the state Conservative Party hovering over the GOP. No Republican has won statewide office without Conservative backing since 1974, and that is why Faso's close Conservative ties are looming as a huge factor. He thinks he will be the Conservative nominee, and that, he says, means he will be the Republican nominee, too.

"It would be foolhardy for the Republican Party to nominate a candidate without the support of the Conservative Party," he said. "I expect to be the nominee of both parties, but I've also pledged to the Conservative Party that I'll be on their ballot this fall."

While he has not officially committed to anyone, Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo typifies the state of the party's post-Golisano gubernatorial prospects. He is disappointed Golisano did not run, believing he could have gained the Conservative and Independence lines, as well as the Republican line, on the ballot.

But with the billionaire gone, Lorigo sees no Conservative nod for Weld and his supportive stand on gay marriage and other issues. Faso now leads the pack, he said, and the Republican leadership ought to recognize his crucial Conservative support.

"It just amazes me that they could presume to run a statewide candidate without the support and ideals of the Conservative Party," Lorigo said. "So in the end, I believe we prevail."

He said he will recommend that Conservatives name their candidate in April or early May, before the Republicans at the end of May.

Republicans face daunting odds, however, on all fronts.

The Marist College poll released Wednesday shows Spitzer leading Weld, 66 to 19 percent, and Faso, 68 to 18 percent. (The same poll showed Golisano with a substantial lead if he were involved in a GOP primary.)

But Jeffrey M. Stonecash, a Syracuse University political scientist, said that anyone handing the November election to Spitzer, the state attorney general, has no concept of New York elections and their unpredictable nature.

"Nobody has ever seen Eliot Spitzer as a campaigner," he said, "nor has the media turned its ugly habits on him. Who knows?"

Weld and Faso have already demonstrated fund-raising prowess and extensive support among the hierarchy, while lesser-known candidates such as former New York Secretary of State Randy A. Daniels and Assemblyman Patrick R. Manning are also working hard but have little money.

But while Weld's $2.1 million in campaign fund raising and Faso's $1 million are dwarfed by Spitzer's $19.1 million, they remain the top contenders. Minarik and most of the party's other leaders are behind Weld, who has returned to his native New York after winning two terms as chief executive in Massachusetts.

Weld, who could not be reached to comment, has powerful allies in party leaders such as Minarik.

"I'm supporting Bill Weld because I think he's the best candidate for our party," Minarik said. "All of the candidates are articulating the issues, but he's the one candidate with the experience of running a state government.

"And Weld is obviously able to access more money than the other candidates combined. That's a critical element."

But Faso, who narrowly lost the 2002 contest for state comptroller to Democrat Alan G. Hevesi, thinks he now has the most to gain from Golisano's departure. While the race was previously cast as "Weld vs. Golisano," it's now "Weld vs. Faso." And he thinks he can fill the vacuum Golisano left throughout upstate, especially in Western New York, and does not think the support of party leaders means much in 2006.

"Frankly, there is no central leadership in the Republican Party today," said the former assemblyman from Kinderhook. "That's what happens when a governor departs office."

And that's why Faso says he will go directly to Republican voters, despite Minarik's wishes.

"It's very possible and very likely we'll have a primary," he said. "Then every enrolled Republican voter in the state will have a say."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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